If Venus In Fur by David Ives is a map of the treacherous territory that exists between men and women as they try and work out who wears the pants, then we may still be in a lot of trouble as a society. We haven’t seemed to move much further from 1870 when the novella, Venus In Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which provides the backstory for Venus In Fur, was published. Venus In Furs delves into a sadomasochistic relationship between a couple of imaginative folks who fantasize about and act out different ways of dominating and submitting to each other and other potential lovers. Apparently a submissive male is still a spectacle.
Ives stretches this idea into the 21st century by giving us a character named Thomas Novachek (Adam Booth), a New York writer/director who has taken it upon himself to adapt Sacher-Masoch’s work into a stage play. He’s been auditioning actresses for the crucial role of Vanda, and is about to throw in the towel after the first round of woeful candidates when in walks a woman, also coincidentally named Vanda (Felicity McKay), from the raging thunderstorm outside. She begs to read for him, and although he resists at first, he eventually succumbs to her wily feminine ways and gives her a shot. Over the next hour or so, their roles become reversed and the line between reality and the play they are reading become blurred.
Felicity McKay is absolutely luminous and mesmerising on scene; it was often difficult to take my eyes off her expressive eyes, which were full of fire, light and wonder at any given moment. Her slightly goofy, slightly tomboyish demeanour belied an internal poise and soft but increasingly steely reserve that shone through once she donned the 1870s Vanda get-up. It was essential for McKay to demonstrate a marked difference between the two characters, but her 1870s Vanda was the more convincing and compelling entity.
Adam Booth has to plumb some uncomfortable depths in the role of Thomas as he falls further and further into Vanda’s grasp; he does so with notable courage. It is a bit squirm-inducing to watch him grovel at Vanda’s feet, but so is it rather humorous, eliciting a round of sniggering from the opening night audience. Booth is a fairly measured actor, so letting go of his composure and control was a palpable struggle.
While the duo each have their strengths in the piece, somehow the chemistry between them was slightly tepid, and at times the dialogue exchange became a bit stilted when they, probably because of opening night nerves, did more acting than reacting. The first three quarters of the piece, although suitably watchable, seemed to lack a certain rising tension that would have made the climax even more explosive.
Sometimes Vanda’s intentions weren’t quite clear as her character’s true nature is revealed, and although it’s good to let audiences decide for themselves what’s happening, it’s also a comfort to be able to rely on definitive gestures and clues that let us in on the joke, so to speak. Additionally the stakes didn’t appear to be high enough for Thomas with regard to his relationship with his absentee fiance; he doesn’t appear to feel too much remorse for his behaviour towards her. Perhaps this is meant to be a sign of the power of Vanda’s spell, but playing with that dilemma more would have added another layer of complexity to the story that could have helped raise the dramatic stakes.
If there’s one scene that could encapsulate the potential this piece has, it would be when Vanda commands Thomas to change her shoes for her. So much is revealed in these simple, silent gestures between the two, largely due to the absolutely gripping gaze McKay has on Booth in the moment. This production will likely continue to simmer, sizzle and improve over its run, unleashing even more revealing moments as they go.